A Lesson in Shark Physiology

By Jasmine Elliot

Moving. From lectures to tutes to study to home to work. From ward rounds to volunteering to that friend’s 21st party to spending time with family. We’re ticking off our to-do lists, reaching deadlines and staring at our rainbow google calendars.

If you’re like me, you feel anxious or guilty when you’re not working towards something, with busyness an undying static sound in the background of life. It sounds counterintuitive but being busy has always been a bit of a coping mechanism, with the hope that if I stayed busy enough, the rest of my life couldn’t catch up with me.

Some of us feel a little like sharks, with motion filling our ‘gills’ with oxygen and standing still associated with a feeling of asphyxiation.

Somewhere in a downward spiral of procrastination, I did some research on shark physiology…

Fun fact #1: Not all sharks have to move to keep breathing, in fact, only 12 in 400 species do. The oldest sharks breathe by ‘buccal pumping,’ and spend time resting at the bottom of the ocean- some do both this and ‘ram ventilation’ (the type of breathing that requires motion).

Fun fact #2: We aren’t sharks. We don’t have gills, don’t breathe underwater and while our attention may be drawn to swimming dogs, we probably don’t want to eat them.

Sharks aside.

Some of us thrive by being busy, it gives us a target to shoot our metaphorical arrows at… but sometimes there are too many targets, our arms get sore and our arrows start splintering. We’re still hitting the targets, but not getting the bullseyes. From a practical standpoint, we’re not doing as well. From a more personal one, we become unwell.

Burn out is something we hear so often about, but often don’t consider properly; we know that ‘burnout is a symptom of burnout,’ but what does it actually look like past a mark in HEP on a preclin exam? It’s when I’ve measured my life by a paralysing never-ending list of tasks, paying no attention to my own mental or physical health which inevitably deteriorated. The list of tasks lost meaning – I was chronically stressed and at the end of year 12 I had nothing left to give to myself or others.

But it wasn’t study that pushed me to this point, it was my voluntary busyness. I recently read a report that people don’t enjoy spending time alone in a room with nothing to do but think. Many would rather do something than nothing – even if that something is nothing. These people opted to receive an electric shock during this time alone – an electric shock which they would pay $5 to avoid. I’m not saying getting involved and having a full life is that same as choosing an electric shock. But I was at the point where I knew that my overcommitment was detrimental, yet I kept pressing that electric shock button.

As medical students now and as medical professionals tomorrow, we’re undoubtedly busy people. But I think this notion of “crazy busy” is a cult that is so difficult to escape from. We’re defining ourselves by what we do and not how we’re doing. We answer ‘busy’ to ‘how are you?’ as if this gives some reflection to our internal being.

In a world where everything is moving, stopping for a moment might feel synonymous with not breathing but unscheduled time isn’t meaningless, nor does back-to-back scheduling enrich ourselves.

Idleness gives us the opportunity to check in with ourselves; to reconnect with our targets, replenish our arrows and restring our bows. This article is probably one of many tabs you have open right now. I would encourage you, at some point, to close all of these and take a minute or two to stop and breathe. Bake something, go for a run, mindlessly float around the internet. It’s time we applauded people for looking after themselves rather than wearing busyness as a badge of honour… because we aren’t sharks.

Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body and deprived of it, we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets.

-Tim Kreider



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